Tuesday, 19 July 2016

St Michael's Church, seeking the light of the world in Camden Town


Light: an image employed in so many religious traditions to denote purity, clarity, unity. And yet, we know that light for all its purity and unity can be divided: white light into the three primary colours, and the infinite spectrum thereafter. In fact, it is the very differentiation of light that allow us to see anything at all, the different wavelengths striking our eyes ready for the brain to translate into images.

“The Lord is my light,” sang the Psalmist of the ancient Jewish Temple. And so Christians believe, with Jews and many others besides, that there is indeed just one primal light for the illumination of the world, one spiritual spiritual light that gives all things meaning, source of all insight, wisdom and vision: and that one light we call God.

Yet many centuries later came a man with challenging words. “I am the light of the world,” he said. “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” And so it is that those who came to call themselves Christian saw in Jesus a differentiation in that one true light, as the light walked among them in the darkness of their violent and corrupt world: the Father’s Son.

The challenge of Christ’s words did not end with his death; for before he went to the Cross, he had another surprising thing to say to his friends about the Divine Light. “The Lord is my light,” they already knew; “I am the light,” they came to believe; but had he not also said, “you are the light of the world”? And so it came to pass, after Jesus had left this world, his body ascended to heaven, when his chosen Apostles met and were enkindled as though by ghostly flames rising from their heads, as symbolised to this day in the Bishop’s mitre - on the day we know as Pentecost or Whitsunday. A third refraction of the one holy light: the Holy Spirit descends and gives new birth to the Church.

Three persons, one God: the classic Christian definition of the Trinity. One light, pure and invisible even to the eye of the soul, refracted into our perception. But the refraction does not end with Pentecost. Through the ages, millions of people like tiny facets on some vast prism have refracted some glint of that divine light, each in their own particular way. The great saints of our religion and others, too, are the obvious examples; but the Christian faith teaches that absolutely every person, every single one, is made in the image of God and has something of that divine light to refract and reflect.

Nobody here can doubt that there are plenty of dark corners to life in Camden Town; but the narrative of the Church shedding light into darkness has been too often overplayed and abused. St Michael’s is thinking and praying through what exactly our mission here in Camden Town is: what precise ray and shade of God’s light the lens of this church is shaped and moulded to shine here. Yet we must not get trapped in that metaphor. We need to look out for where that light is already shining in the many people and organisations of goodwill already working here, to see how we can reflect off each other and help each others’ share of the light grow brighter. We need to look out for where that light is already shining, too, deep in the hearts of those whose lives are most obviously blighted by darkness and to help enkindle the light within them. And we need to look out for the darkness in our own hearts, in our own Church, and be open to light that others may bring.

At St Michael’s, we offer a range of community services and want to offer more, to help with more; but if that was at the heart of what we do, we might as well raze this expensive old building and build a community centre. But the beauty of this Victorian masterpiece, which has been called a “sculpture in light,” makes manifest the the primary role of the Church: namely, the worship of God, by which we believe that the divine light is kindled in human hearts. That is why we have invested so much Heritage Lottery Funding on relighting the building, improving the sound system, and making our history better known: not just heritage for heritage’s sake, not just to become a viable venue for gigs, but because beauty in itself is a reflection of God’s light and love. We hope that this church can offer Camden Town a venue, artistic and cultural, yes; a sense of local history and shared identity, too; a Christian community dedicated to loving service and cooperation with our neighbours, of course; but fundamentally, a place of sanctuary and peace, a resource for learning the truth, goodness, beauty and wisdom of God, and so worshipping him here: a light that gives glory to the the heavenly Father whom I believe every one of us shares.

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